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Millbrook Punishment Park – An Engineer’s Playground

Chris Haining November 13, 2013 Hooniverse Goes To..., Road Trip 5 Comments

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Racetracks are great. Every circuit has its own distinct character and set of challenges, which test the mettle of the driver in a specific way. There’s no getting away from the fact, though, that a racetrack is just that. Designed for racing, with clean racing lines, plenty of run-off and a layout which aims to be vaguely spectator-friendly. I pain with broad strokes, here.

What a racetrack can’t necessarily do is test a car. What you really need for that is a Proving Ground. There are examples of these wonderful establishments all over the world; but one is particularly close to my heart. That place is Millbrook, in Bedfordshire, England; and I wish I could play there a lot more frequently than I can.

You’ll all recognize Millbrook, or bits of it, anyway, from regular appearances on Top Gear, or any other motoring program who’s production budget could be stretched far enough to hire it. Or from the Aston Martin roll sequence in Casino Royale, filmed on these premises.

Basically, if there’s something you want to test on your car, there’s a way of testing it at Millbrook. If you’ve got a 42 tonne truck and trailer and you want to test it on gradients up to 26%? Step this way. If you’re looking to perfect the ride quality on your new luxo-barge, might I point Sir in the direction of the 0.9mile Belgian Block Pave loop with angled depressions? There’s also a 137 metre steering pad, a whole range of noise-generating surfaces for interior sound tests, and if you feel the need, the need for speed, get yourself down to the two-mile banked circle with its 100mph “Hands off” speed. It really has everything.

Millbrook's Amazing Hill Route (2)

Millbrook proving ground is one of the biggest and best vehicle testing grounds in Europe. Construction started in January 1968 on 700 acres of useless agricultural land in the middle of nowhere, also known as Lidlington. The layout chosen was based on the General Motors Milford proving ground in Michigan and Millbrook (dubbed Punishment Park in much early GM promotional material) has spent much of its life with The General looking after it in one way or another, though various other names have appeared on the deeds since it opened.

This year, though, has seen GM step away from any form of ownership, with the whole shooting match being taken over by Rutland Partnership, an anonymous-sounding Private Equity firm. They promise to offer Millbrook a bright future, with massive investment into new technologies to increase uptake of use of the facilities, with GM vowing that they will continue to visit the site for vehicle development purposes.

And, handily for the engineers involved in these rigorous testing programmes, there is rather a lot of fun to be had within the tree-masked confines of the complex, especially if they spend time on The Hill Route, AKA the most fun section of blacktop I have ever driven on.

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It’d described, un-romantically, as  “arranged in loops with varying gradients that can be repeated or by-passed as required”, a very mundane description for a network of roads that recreate all the greatest country lanes, hairpins, alpine summits and sweeping bends you could possibly hope for, and all within an hour of London. This is a stretch of tarmac that turns formerly boastful drivers into quivering, hopeless, hollow, beaten wrecks.

Throw your average “Driving God” journalist behind the wheel of a reasonably fast car and tell him to go have some fun. He’ll start off with a big, broad smile, then he’ll begin to giggle, then he’ll very probably soil himself and either totally re-think and re-evaluate his driving technique or be scraping bits of paint, metal, blood and bone off the crash barriers. This is a stretch of tarmac that educates people very, very quickly, not just about the limitations of the organic guidance computer (the driver) but of the car itself.

And that’s the point. The Hill Route tells the absolute truth. No car can hide from its un-masking qualities; it’s the automotive equivalent of sodium thiopental. A car might feel perfectly planted in one second-gear, positive camber right-hand turn, but hopelessly wayward on the next, a third-gear downhill negative camber left hand sweeper. The car’s weight will shift from axle to axle, side to side, with extreme frequency. Crests are often blind, with unexpected deviations to further upset the cars balance.

Every time you attack the course you find something new. Just when you think you know the car, you take a slightly different line through a bend and find a bump at the apex you hadn’t noticed before, which either upsets the car or proves its excellence. And on every car you learn how essential good brakes are to speedy progress, and how a truly great car has perfect synergy between brakes, engine and suspension.

This is a video captured in a Seven driven by Colin Hoad, an instructor at a driving school based at the facility (Best viewed big and LOUD)

I’ve only ever been here, like, twice. Remember, not only do product development and chassis engineers get to come here for legitimate reasons in the name of work but the guys from the buff magazines get to play on these tracks, driving borrowed exotica, and get PAID for it every week of the year.

The worst thing about it, or the best depending on your viewpoint and how much of a lucky bugger you are, is that the whole complex is basically out-of-bounds to the general public. If Johnny Normal is granted access for whatever reason, the security is strict and cameras are about as acceptable as not wearing any clothes from the waist down, even mobile phones have to have a seal placed over the lens; thus:

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Note the seal is broken: This wasn’t through any lawlessness on my part, it’s just legacy of the battery on my phone being severely unstable and the back cover having to be removed about ten minutes after the sticker was applied. But I digress; the reason for the heavy security is that, being a test complex, there are new cars being tested. Many of these have never been exposed to the public, a fair few never will.

On my most recent visit I saw at least three such vehicles; I shan’t go into any details as to what they might have been, for fear of my access being denied forevermore; suffice to say one was big and expensive-looking, one was massive and had four axles, and one was small and had zebra camouflage all over it. Sorry; no exclusives here.

So that, really, is Millbrook. All the ingredients for a Hoon’s perfect day out.

(Disclaimer due to photo embargo: Images thanks to (from top down) driven-ltd.co.uk, milbrook.co.uk, youtube.com (via simonscarspots). Video from CATDriverTraining. Thanks)

 

  • Party at Chris's.

  • Patrick

    "We know a remote proving ground, in Bedfordshire. Every year, journalists crash there…"

  • Scandinavian Flick ★

    Apparently it's too much for YouTube to handle too…

    <img src="http://i.imgur.com/n2E65t9.jpg&quot; width="450">

    That first pic is beautiful. It truly looks like a playground.

  • NotJustDucky

    "dubbed Punishment Park in much early GM promotional material"

    Probably by people thinking along the same lines as those who gave Iceland its name: if we name it something unappealing, nobody will want to come here and we can keep all this good stuff to ourselves.

  • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

    It looks like a particle accelerator, I dub thee Millbrook Automobokillotron!